Web Innovators Guru: An Interview with Venrock’s David Beisel

If you’ve been to the bimonthly Web Innovators Group meetings at the Royal Sonesta ballroom in Cambridge, you know that the menu always consists of three or four “main dish” talks by local entrepreneurs launching new Web services, along with three to five “side dish” presentations by companies who set up tables around the room. And you probably know that the chef de cuisine—the man who tastes all the ingredients and selects the evening’s menu—is David Beisel, a vice president at venture capital firm Venrock.

But you may not know that these bustling startup feasts, which regularly draw several hundred attendees, started out three years ago with just a dozen people around a table at Tommy Doyle’s pub in Central Square—or that a good fraction of the 90-some companies hand-picked by Beisel to present over the years have gone on to win funding or achieve illustrious exits.

I caught up with Beisel this week at the Cambridge offices of Venrock, which is one of the grand old pioneers of the venture business. Formed in 1969 by Laurance Rockefeller and other members of the Rockefeller family, the firm has backed Intel, Apple, 3Com, Gilead, Polycom, Doubleclick, and nearly 400 other prominent information technology and life sciences companies. For several decades it was a family operation, but in the mid-1990s, Venrock began to raise money from limited partners outside the Rockefeller family, who now account for a majority of the firm’s investors. Last year the company launched its fifth fund, amounting to some $600 million, with a dual focus on life sciences and digital media.

Beisel and general partner Mike Tyrell manage the company’s Boston-area digital media investments. I asked Beisel how the Web Innovators Group meetings play into the firm’s investing strategy, what technology areas he considers most exciting, and what the firm is doing to work with entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily need several million dollars to get their companies launched. (By the way, the next Web Inno meeting is coming up next Wednesday, April 2.)

Xconomy: You’ve been very visible in the local IT community as the organizer of the Web Innovators Group meetings, which are coming up on their 17th edition, I think. Can you tell me how that event got started and why it’s worth spending your time on?

David Beisel: The event got started back in the summer of 2005. I literally invited just 12 or so folks to Tommy Doyle’s. It was just Web entrepreneurs, and it was a very informal gathering. By the second time, people started inviting other folks, and by the third time we had probably around 50 people. That’s when I realized there was something more here and I started putting a little bit of structure around it and introduced the notion of having informal demonstrations to the crowd.

Venrock LogoI know the Reddit guys demoed there, and also Blogniscient, which ended up getting rolled into Top Ten Media. Later on, I introduced the idea of “main dishes” and “side dishes” and put it on a little more formal schedule. I try to make it every other month. There’s enough space between each one that it becomes an event, with something special about it that people look forward to. At the last one, people were saying 500 people came.

X: When you’re deciding which companies to feature as main dishes and side dishes, do you find that you’re having to turn people away?

DB: Yeah, I’d say in the last year especially. It’s a great forum for companies to get feedback and exposure to some of the media and the investment community. For every event I’ll have seven to nine presentations and I’ll get a few dozen applicants. I try to figure out not only which ones I think are “best,” but … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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